UK, EU face significant medicine shortages, study says

LONDON — Patients in the U.K. and European Union are facing shortages of vital medicines such as antibiotics and epilepsy medication, research published Thursday found.

The report by Britain’s Nuffield Trust think-tank found the situation had become a “new normal” in the U.K. and was “also having a serious impact in EU countries.”

Mark Dayan, Brexit program lead at the Nuffield Trust think tank, said Britain’s decision to leave the European Union had not caused U.K. supply problems but had exacerbated them.

“We know many of the problems are global and relate to fragile chains of imports from Asia, squeezed by COVID-19 shutdowns, inflation and global instability,” he said.

“But exiting the EU has left the U.K. with several additional problems -– products no longer flow as smoothly across the borders with the EU, and in the long term our struggles to approve as many medicines might mean we have fewer alternatives available,” he said.

Researchers also warned that being outside the EU might mean Britain is unable to benefit from EU measures taken to tackle shortages, such as bringing drug manufacturing back to Europe.

It said that this included the EU’s Critical Medicines Alliance which it launched in early 2024.

Analysis of freedom of information requests and public data on drug shortages showed the number of notifications from drug companies warning of impending shortages in the UK had more than doubled in three years.

Some 1,634 alerts were issued in 2023, up from 648 in 2020, according to the report, The Future for Health After Brexit.

Paul Rees, chief executive of the National Pharmacy Association (NPA), said medicine shortages had become “commonplace,” adding that this was “totally unacceptable” in any modern health system.

“Supply shortages are a real and present danger to those patients who rely on life-saving medicines for their well-being,” he said.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said the U.K. was not alone in facing medical supply issues.

It said most cases of shortages had been “swiftly managed with minimal disruption to patients.” 

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Georgia presses on with ‘foreign agents’ bill opposed by EU

TBILISI, GEORGIA — Georgia’s parliament gave initial approval on Wednesday to a bill on “foreign agents” that the European Union said risked blocking the country’s path to membership and triggered protests for a third straight night.

The fate of the bill is widely seen as a test of whether Georgia, 33 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, intends to pursue a path of integration with the West or move closer toward Russia.

Critics compare the bill to a law that Russia has used extensively to crack down on dissent.

As many as 10,000 opponents of the bill gathered outside the parliament, sitting atop cars and buildings — a day after police used pepper spray to clear protesters away from part of the building.

Several thousand protesters moved over to the government building, heavily guarded by police, to demand a meeting with Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze, the bill’s principal backer.

Some demonstrators, many wearing helmets and masks, scuffled with police outside the building.

Eighty-three of 150 deputies voted in favor, while opposition MPs boycotted the vote. The bill must pass two more readings before becoming law.

It would require organizations receiving more than 20% of their funding from abroad to register as agents of foreign influence.

Soon after the vote, the EU said in a statement, “This is a very concerning development, and the final adoption of this legislation would negatively impact Georgia’s progress on its EU path. This law is not in line with EU core norms and values.”

It said the proposed legislation “would limit the capacity of civil society and media organizations to operate freely, could limit freedom of expression and unfairly stigmatize organizations that deliver benefits to the citizens of Georgia.”

The EU urged Georgia to “refrain from adopting legislation that can compromise Georgia’s EU path.” The United States and Britain have also urged Georgia not to pass the bill.

The prime minister, in comments quoted by the Interpressnews, said Western politicians had not produced a single valid argument against the bill, and their statements would not prompt the government to change its mind.

President Salome Zourabichvili, whose role is mostly ceremonial, said she would veto the law if it was passed. But parliament has the power to override her veto.

The ruling Georgian Dream Party, which has faced accusations of authoritarianism and excessive closeness to Russia, says the bill is necessary to promote transparency and combat “pseudo-liberal values” imposed by foreigners.

Protesters call bill ‘Russian’

The Interior Ministry said two people were detained at the latest protest. On Tuesday, 11 were detained, and one police officer was injured in altercations.

Protesters who denounced the bill as the “Russian law” appeared undaunted.

“It is very hard to predict any scenario, because the government is unpredictable, unreliable, untruthful, sarcastic and cynical,” said activist Paata Sabelashvili. “People here are just flowing and flowing and flowing like rivers.”

Parliament passed the law on first reading in a rowdy session during which four opposition lawmakers were removed from the chamber amid shouts of “No to the Russian law” and “Traitors.”

Russia is viewed with deep suspicion by many in the South Caucasus country of 3.7 million people, which in 2008 lost a brief war with Moscow over the Moscow-backed breakaway territory of South Ossetia.

Russia defends legislation as ‘normal’

Russia said on Wednesday it had nothing to do with the law and defended it as a “normal practice.” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said it was being used by outside actors to stoke anti-Russian sentiment.

The bill was initially introduced in March 2023. but was shelved after two nights of violent protests and has increased divisions in a deeply polarized Georgia.

A coalition of opposition groups, civil society, celebrities and the president have rallied to oppose it.

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US prepared to ‘take further steps’ as it warns China against enabling Russia

state department — The United States warned China on Wednesday against helping Russia in its war on Ukraine and said it is “prepared to take further steps as necessary.” In Italy, foreign ministers from the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations gathered to reaffirm their support for Ukraine’s defense.

“We believe that the PRC is supporting Russia’s war effort and is doing so by helping ramp up its defense production,” State Department principal deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel told reporters during a briefing in Washington.

“Specifically,” he said, “the PRC is providing Russia with significant quantities of machine tools, microelectronics, optics, UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones] and cruise missile technology, and nitrocellulose, which Russia uses to make propellants for weapons.”

Patel said the United States believes these materials “are filling critical gaps in Russia’s defense production cycle” and helping to revitalize Russia’s defense industrial base.

“China’s support is actively enabling Russia’s war in Ukraine, and it poses a significant threat to European security,” he added. “We’ve sanctioned relevant firms in the PRC and are prepared to take further steps as necessary.”

Blinken, G7 leaders talk

In Capri, Italy, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is holding talks this week with foreign ministers from the other G7 countries — Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United Kingdom — as well as representatives from the European Union. Topics include Ukraine support, the Middle East crisis, Haitian instability and global partnerships.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock on Wednesday said the G7 ministers would discuss how to get more air defense to Ukraine as Kyiv faces increasing pressure from Russia.

“We and our partners around the world must now be just as resolute in our defense against Russian terror from the air,” Baerbock said in a statement.

Blinken will later visit China, where he is expected to bring up Washington’s concerns about China’s support for Russia’s defense industrial base.

On the margins of the G7 meeting Wednesday, Blinken and Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani signed a memorandum of understanding to counter the manipulation of information by other countries.

Blinken said the two nations are collaborating on “all of the most critical issues,” including aiding Ukraine in defending itself against Russian aggression, addressing challenges in the Middle East and sharing approaches to challenges posed by China.

Beijing rejected what Chinese officials described as Washington’s “smear.”

“China regulates the export of dual-use articles in accordance with laws and regulations. Relevant countries should not smear or attack the normal relations between China and Russia and should not harm the legitimate rights and interests of China and Chinese companies,” Mao Ning, a spokeswoman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said during a briefing.

China continues supporting Russia

After Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s visit to Beijing last week, Chinese officials said China would “continue to support Russia in pursuing development and revitalization under the leadership of President Vladimir Putin.”

They said the two nations “have committed themselves to lasting friendship” and a deepened comprehensive strategic partnership.

Russian missile kills at least 17

In Washington, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo met with Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal. The two discussed the U.S. Commerce Department’s work with partners to coordinate export controls and restrict sales of advanced technologies to Russia.

Deputy U.S. Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo said G7 finance leaders have been working toward a plan to unlock the value of frozen Russian sovereign assets to aid Ukraine in the near term. But he noted the talks are still a work in progress.

In Ukraine, officials said earlier Wednesday that a Russian missile attack hit the northern city of Chernihiv, killing at least 17 people and injuring 61 others.

Denise Brown, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator in Ukraine, condemned the latest wave of strikes. She also emphasized that under international humanitarian law, civilians and hospitals must be protected.

In Chernihiv, aid workers provided on-the-ground support to those affected by the strikes, including psychosocial and legal assistance. Their efforts complement the work of first responders and rescue services.

Some information for this report came from Reuters.

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25 years after massacre in Kosovo, survivors appeal for justice

Twenty-five years ago this week, Serbian forces killed 53 Albanians in the Kosovar village of Poklek, making it one of the worst massacres of the war in Kosovo. Today, some survivors still seek justice for their families. VOA’s Keida Kostreci reports. Camera: Burim Goxhuli, Bujar Sylejmani.

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Swedish Parliament votes to make it easier for people to legally change their gender

COPENHAGEN, Denmark — The Swedish parliament passed a law Wednesday lowering the age required for people to legally change their gender from 18 to 16.

Young people under 18 will still need approval from a guardian, a doctor, and the National Board of Health and Welfare.

However, a gender dysphoria diagnosis — defined by medical professionals as psychological distress experienced by those whose gender expression does not match their gender identity — will no longer be required.

Following a debate that lasted for nearly six hours, 234 lawmakers voted for the plans, 94 against and 21 were listed as absent.

The center-right coalition of Sweden’s conservative prime minister, Ulf Kristersson, has been split on the issue, with his own Moderates and the Liberals largely supporting the law while the small Christian Democrats were against it. Sweden Democrats, the populist party with far-right roots that support the government in parliament but are not part of the government, also opposed it.

Denmark, Norway, Finland and Spain are among countries that already have similar laws.

Last Friday, German lawmakers approved a similar legislation, making it easier for transgender, intersex and nonbinary people to change their name and gender in official records directly at registry offices.

In the U.K., the Scottish parliament in 2022 passed a bill allowing people aged 16 or older to change their gender designation on identity documents by self-declaration. It was vetoed by the British government, a decision that Scotland’s highest civil court upheld in December. The legislation set Scotland apart from the rest of the U.K., where the minimum age is 18 and a medical diagnosis is required.

Jimmie Akesson, the leader of the Sweden Democrats, told reporters it was “deplorable that a proposal that clearly lacks the support of the population is so lightly voted through.”

But Johan Hultberg, of Kristersson’s Moderates, said that the outcome was “gratifying.”

The newly approved law was “a cautious but important reform for a vulnerable group. I’m glad we’re done with it,” he said.

Peter Sidlund Ponkala, chairman of the Swedish Federation for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Intersex Rights, known by its Swedish acronym RFSL, called Wednesday’s news “a step in the right direction” and “a recognition for everyone who has been waiting for decades for a new law.”

Elias Fjellander, chairman of the organization’s youth branch, said it “will make life better for our members.”

“Going forward, we are pushing to strengthen gender-affirming care, to introduce a third legal gender and to ban conversion attempts,” Fjellander said in a statement.

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G7 foreign ministers meet in Italy amid calls for sanctions on Iran

CAPRI, Italy — Foreign ministers from the Group of Seven (G7) major democracies gathered on the Italian island of Capri on Wednesday for three days of talks overshadowed by expectations of an Israeli retaliation against Iran for missile and drone attacks.

The continuing escalation of tensions between Israel and Iran and the wars in Gaza and in Ukraine will dominate the agenda of the ministers from the United States, Britain, France, Italy, Germany, Canada and Japan.  

Italy, which holds the G7’s rotating presidency, is pushing for a ceasefire in Gaza and a de-escalation of Middle East tensions, but Israel looks very likely to retaliate against Iran’s weekend attacks despite Western calls for restraint.

“Against a background of strong international tensions, the Italian-led G7 is tasked with working for peace,” Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani said in a statement.

The G7 nations pledged support for Israel after the attack, which came in response to a presumed Israeli airstrike on Iran’s embassy compound in Damascus on April 1 which killed two generals and several other Iranian officers.

The U.S. said on Tuesday it was planning to impose new sanctions on Tehran’s missile and drone program in the coming days and expected its allies to follow suit. Tajani told Reuters this week that any sanctions might just focus on individuals.

The Iranian missiles and drones launched on Saturday were mostly shot down by Israel and its allies, and caused no deaths. But Israel says it must retaliate to preserve the credibility of its deterrents. Iran says it considers the matter closed for now but will retaliate again if Israel does.

Ukraine

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will also be a major topic in Capri, with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg scheduled to join the talks on Thursday.

Germany said on Wednesday the G7 ministers would discuss how to get more air defenses to Ukraine as Kyiv faces increasing pressure from relentless Russian air strikes on its energy network.

Another key issue will be ways of utilizing profits from some $300 billion of sovereign Russian assets held in the West to help Ukraine, amid hesitation among some European Union member states over the legality of such a move.

The opening session of the meeting on Wednesday evening will focus on Gaza and Iran, with the situation in the Red Sea under scrutiny on Thursday morning. Before turning to Ukraine, the ministers will look at ways of strengthening ties with Africa.

The G7 ministers will also discuss stability in the Indo-Pacific region, Italy has said, and hold debates on issues including infrastructure connectivity, cybersecurity, Artificial Intelligence and the fight against fake news.

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At 12, China-central and eastern Europe group faces growing pains

Vienna, Austria — Next week, China will mark the 12th anniversary of a group for central and eastern European countries it established to grow its influence in the EU. But when it does, there will be no high-level activities or celebrations to mark the group’s creation.

Since 2019, the frequency of meetings between China and central and eastern European leaders has decreased, and one after another, members have withdrawn.

Matej Simalcik, executive director at the Central European Institute of Asian Studies, told VOA Mandarin that when the China-Central and Eastern European Countries Cooperation Mechanism was launched on April 26, 2012, central and eastern European, or CEE states “were largely motivated as a reaction to the global financial crisis. Cooperation with China was seen as a means to provide new stimuli for economic growth.”

Since its inception, however, the initiative has been riddled with problems. 

“From the very beginning, agenda-setting within the format was largely dominated by the Chinese side. At the same time, CEE capitals often failed to not just promote, but also come up with their own ideas about what kind of cooperation with China would best serve their interests,” Simalcik said.

“With this, the format’s annual summits were reduced to mere talk shops, which also served Chinese domestic propaganda purposes.”

Also known as the 16+1, the group has included Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Montenegro, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia and Slovenia. When Greece joined in 2019, it was renamed 17+1.

From 2013 to 2019, seven meetings were held: six in the capitals of Romania, Serbia, Latvia, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Croatia and one in Suzhou, China.

Members have not held an in-person leadership meeting since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2019, and it has been three years since Chinese President Xi Jinping attended a video conference.

During that same period, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania announced their withdrawal, while China’s relations with the Czech Republic and other central and eastern European countries deteriorated.

Ja Ian Chong, associate professor of the Department of Political Science at the National University of Singapore, tells VOA’s Mandarin service that many central and eastern European states have grown more cautious — even suspicious — of Beijing and its projects, “especially after seeing Moscow’s aggression toward Ukraine and Beijing’s continuing support for Russia.”

China’s outward investment projects have started to decline and the economic incentives for cooperation are now no longer as great, Chong adds. 

China’s “transnational repression within Europe and diplomatic spats with Czechia and Lithuania that came with economic punishment further reduced appetite for cooperation with Beijing,” he said.

Simalcik said China’s sanctions of members of the European Parliament over the Xinjiang issue and its interference in central and eastern European states’ interactions with Taiwan, especially Taiwan-Czech Republic relations, have also made cooperation between the two sides more difficult.

Beijing considers Taiwan a breakaway province and has not ruled out the use of force to unify it with the mainland.

Xinjiang is a region of China where Beijing is accused of human rights violations against Uyghur Muslims. Beijing denies the accusations.  

Filip Sebok, a China researcher at the Association for International Affairs in Prague, told VOA Mandarin that much has changed since China initiated the 16+1 mechanism in 2012. 

While China could present itself at that time as a mostly economic actor, “It is now clear for most European nations, including those in CEE, that China also presents certain security and geopolitical challenges,” he said.

“At the same time, the authoritarian turn within China, human rights abuses, and the spillover of its authoritarian outreach abroad have also changed perceptions of China,” he added. 

However, cooperation between China and CEE countries has not been fruitless, Chong said.

“In essence, CEE states that are more authoritarian and have friendlier ties with Russia tend to be more positive about the cooperation with the PRC,” he said.

Sebok said if Beijing wants to win the support of CEE countries, it should meet these countries’ expectations for economic cooperation. The mismatch between expectations and results led to the decreasing profile of the China-CEE cooperation format. 

“However, we might yet see a reinvigoration of the format in some form. An important factor is the rising Chinese investment in electromobility supply chains, which we are seeing mainly in Hungary, but also in Slovakia and Poland. This might give the cooperation a new impetus,” he said.

Changes in the political situation in Europe and the United States may also create opportunities for restarting cooperation. 

Sebok said that Slovakia, after parliamentary elections in 2023 and presidential election this year, “is exhibiting signs of seeking a closer relationship with China, which might enlarge the group of China-enthusiastic countries.”

If the United States elects a new president and changes its approach to the EU, that “might also create new opportunities for China to take advantage of the uncertainty in the region and increase its influence,” he said.

The United States holds its presidential election this November.

Adrianna Zhang contributed to this report.

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Moscow sharpens warnings to Israel, in apparent pivot to Iran

Moscow has avoided condemning Iran’s attack against Israel while calling on Israeli leaders to exercise restraint. Analysts say the Kremlin’s statements suggest it has chosen Iran as a preferred partner and abandoned the delicate diplomatic balance that it cultivated for decades in the region. Steve Baragona narrates this report by Ricardo Marquina.

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Facing Republican revolt, House Speaker Johnson pushes ahead on US aid for Ukraine, Israel

Washington — Defiant and determined, House Speaker Mike Johnson pushed back Tuesday against mounting Republican anger over his proposed U.S. aid package for Ukraine, Israel and other allies, and rejected a call to step aside or risk a vote to oust him from office.

“I am not resigning,” Johnson said after a testy morning meeting of fellow House Republicans at the Capitol

Johnson referred to himself as a “wartime speaker” of the House and indicated in his strongest self-defense yet he would press forward with a U.S. national security aid package, a situation that would force him to rely on Democrats to help pass it, over objections from his weakened majority.

“We are simply here trying to do our jobs,” Johnson said, calling the motion to oust him “absurd … not helpful.”

Tuesday brought a definitive shift in tone from both the House Republicans and the speaker himself at a pivotal moment as the embattled leader tries, against the wishes of his majority, to marshal the votes needed to send the stalled national security aid for Israel, Ukraine and other overseas allies to passage.

Johnson appeared emboldened by his meeting late last week with Donald Trump when the Republican former president threw him a political lifeline with a nod of support after their private talk at Trump’s Mar-A-Lago resort in Florida. At his own press conference Tuesday, Johnson spoke of the importance of ensuring Trump, who is now at his criminal trial in New York, is re-elected to the White House.

Johnson also spoke over the weekend with President Joe Biden as well as other congressional leaders about the emerging U.S. aid package, which the speaker plans to move in separate votes for each section — with bills for Ukraine, Israel, the Indo-Pacific region. He spoke about it with Biden again late Monday.

It’s a complicated approach that breaks apart the Senate’s $95 billion aid package for separate votes, and then stitches it back together for the president’s signature.

The approach will require the speaker to cobble together bipartisan majorities with different factions of House Republicans and Democrats on each measure. Additionally, Johnson is preparing a fourth measure that would include various Republican-preferred national security priorities, such as a plan to seize some Russian assets in U.S. banks to help fund Ukraine and another to turn the economic aid for Ukraine into loans.

The plan is not an automatic deal-braker for Democrats in the House and Senate, with leaders refraining from comment until they see the actual text of the measure, due out later Tuesday.

House Republicans, however, were livid that Johnson will be leaving their top priority — efforts to impose more security at the U.S.-Mexico border — on the sidelines. Some predicted Johnson will not be able to push ahead with voting on the package this week, as planned..

Rep. Debbie Lesko, a Republican representing Arizona, called the morning meeting an “argument fest.”

She said Johnson was “most definitely” losing support for the plan, but he seemed undeterred in trying to move forward despite “what the majority of the Conference” of Republicans wanted.

When the speaker said the House Republicans’ priority border security bill H.R. 2 would not be considered germane to the package, Rep. Chip Roy, a Republican representing Texas and a chief sponsor, said it’s for the House to determine which provisions and amendments are relevant.

“Things are very unresolved,” Roy said.

Roy said said Republicans want “to be united. They just have to be able to figure out how to do it.”

The speaker faces a threat of ouster from Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican representing Georgia and the top Trump ally who has filed a motion to vacate the speaker from office in a snap vote — much the way Republicans ousted their former speaker, Kevin McCarthy, last fall.

While Greene has not said if or when she will force the issue, and has not found much support for her plan after last year’s turmoil over McCarthy’s exit, she drew at least one key supporter Tuesday.

Rep. Thomas Massie, a Republican representing Kentucky, rose in the meeting and suggested Johnson should step aside, pointing to the example of John Boehner, an even earlier House speaker who announced an early resignation in 2015 rather than risk a vote to oust him, according to Republicans in the room.

Johnson did not respond, according to Republicans in the room, but told the lawmakers they have a “binary” choice” before them.

The speaker explained they either try to pass the package as he is proposing or risk facing a discharge petition from Democrats that would force a vote on their preferred package — the Senate approved measure. But that would leave behind the extra Republican priorities.

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German chancellor promotes fair competition, warns against overproduction during China visit

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US citizen arrested in Moscow on drug charges appears in court

Moscow — A U.S. citizen arrested on drug charges in Moscow amid soaring Russia-U.S. tensions over Ukraine appeared in court on Monday.

Robert Woodland Romanov is facing charges of trafficking large amounts of illegal drugs as part of an organized group — a criminal offense punishable by up to 20 years in prison. He was remanded into custody in January, and the trial began in the Ostankino District Court in late March. A new court hearing is scheduled for next week.

In January, the U.S. State Department said it was aware of reports of the recent detention of a U.S. citizen and noted that it “has no greater priority than the safety and security of U.S. citizens overseas,” but refrained from further comment, citing privacy considerations. The U.S. Embassy in Moscow issued a similar statement at the time.

Russian media noted that the name of the accused matches that of a U.S. citizen interviewed by the popular daily Komsomolskaya Pravda in 2020.

In the interview, the man said that he was born in the Perm region in the Ural Mountains in 1991 and was adopted by an American couple when he was two. He said that he traveled to Russia to find his Russian mother and eventually met her in a TV show in Moscow.

The man told Komsomolskaya Pravda that he liked living in Russia and decided to move there. The newspaper reported that he settled in the town of Dolgoprudny just outside Moscow and was working as an English teacher at a local school.

Arrests of Americans in Russia have become increasingly common as relations between Moscow and Washington sink to Cold War lows. Washington accuses Moscow of targeting its citizens and using them as political bargaining chips, but Russian officials insist they all broke the law.

Some have been exchanged for Russians held in the U.S., while for others, the prospects of being released in a swap are less clear.

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At birthplace of Olympics, performers at flame-lighting ceremony feel a pull of ancient past

ANCIENT OLYMPIA, Greece — No one knows what music in ancient Greece sounded like or how dancers once moved.

Every two years, a new interpretation of the ancient performance gets a global audience. It takes place in southern Greece at a site many still consider sacred: the birthplace of the Olympic Games.

Forty-eight performers, chosen in part for their resemblance to youths in antiquity as seen in statues and other surviving artwork, will take part Tuesday in the flame-lighting ceremony for the Paris Olympics. 

Details of the 30-minute performance are fine-tuned — and kept secret — right up until a public rehearsal Monday.

The Associated Press got rare access to rehearsals that took place during weekends, mostly at an Olympic indoor cycling track in Athens. 

As riders whiz around them on the banked cycling oval, the all-volunteer Olympic performers snatch poses from ancient vases. Sequences are repeated and re-repeated under the direction of the hyper-focused head choreographer Artemis Ignatiou.

“In ancient times there was no Olympic flame ceremony,” Ignatiou said during a recent practice session.

“My inspiration comes from temple pediments, from images on vases, because there is nothing that has been preserved — no movement, no dance — from antiquity,” she said. “So basically, what we are doing is joining up those images. Everything in between comes from us.”

Ceremonies take place at Olympia every two years for the Winter and Summer Games, with the sun’s rays focused on the inside of a parabolic mirror to produce the Olympic flame and start the torch relay to the host city.

Women dressed as priestesses are at the heart of the ceremony, first held for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Leading the group is an actress who performs the role of high priestess and makes a dramatic appeal to Apollo, the ancient god of the sun, for assistance moments before the torch is lit.

Over the decades, new ingredients have been progressively added: music, choreography, new colors for the costumes, male performers known as “kouroi” and subtle style inclusions to give a nod to the culture of the Olympic host nation.

Adding complexity also has introduced controversy, inevitably amplified by social media. Criticism this year has centered on the dresses and tunics to be worn by the performers, styled to resemble ancient Greek columns. Faultfinders have called it a rude departure from the ceremony’s customary elegance.

Organizers hope the attire will create a more positive impression when witnessed at the ruins of ancient Olympia.

Counting out the sequences, Ignatiou controls the music with taps on her cell phone while keeping track of the male dancers at the velodrome working on a stop motion-like routine and women who glide past them like a slowly uncoiling spring.

Ignatiou has been involved with the ceremony for 36 years, as priestess, high priestess, assistant and then head choreographer since 2008. She takes in the criticism with composure.

She’s still moved to tears when describing the flame lighting, but defers to her dancers to describe their experience of the five-month participation at practices.

Most in their early twenties, the performers are selected from dance and drama academies with an eye on maintaining an athletic look and classic Greek aesthetic, the women with hair pulled back in neat double-braids.

Christiana Katsimpraki, a 23-year-old drama school student who is taking part at Olympia for the first time, said she wants to repay the kindness shown to her by older performers.

“Before I go to bed, when I close my eyes, I go through the whole choreography — a run through — to make sure I have all the steps memorized and that they’re in the right order,” she said. “It’s so that the next time I can come to the rehearsal, it all goes correctly and no one gets tired.”

The ceremony is performed to sparse music, and final routine modifications are made at Olympia, in part to cope with the pockmarked and uneven ground at the site.

Dancers describe the fun they have in messaging groups, the good-natured pranks played on newcomers and fun they have on the four-hour bus ride to the ancient site in southern Greece — but also the significance of the moment and the pull of the past.

“I’m in awe that we’re going there and that I’m going to be part of this whole team,” 23-year-old performer Kallia Vouidaski said. “I’m going to have this entire experience that I watched when I was little on TV. I would say, ’Oh! How cool would it be if I could do this at some point.’ And I did it.”

The flame-lighting ceremony will start at 0830 GMT Tuesday. A separate flame-handover ceremony to the Paris 2024 organizing committee will be held in Athens on April 26. 

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Hundreds of Georgians protest as parliament set to advance ‘foreign agent’ bill

Tbilisi — Several hundred protesters gathered outside the Georgian parliament on Monday as ruling party legislators on the judicial committee looked set to advance a controversial bill on “foreign agents” criticized by Western countries.

The ruling Georgian Dream party said earlier this month it would reintroduce legislation requiring organizations that accept funds from abroad to register as foreign agents or face fines, 13 months after protests forced it to shelve the plan.

The bill has been criticized by European countries and the United States. The European Union, which gave Georgia candidate status in December, has said the move is incompatible with the bloc’s values. 

Georgian critics have labelled it “the Russian law,” comparing it to similar legislation used by the Kremlin to crack down on dissent in Russia.

Russia is widely unpopular in Georgia, due to Moscow’s support for the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia defeated Georgia in a short war in 2008.

Georgian Dream, which says it wants the country to join the EU and NATO even as it has deepened ties with Moscow, says the bill is necessary to combat what it calls “pseudo-liberal values” imposed by foreigners, and to promote transparency.

Opposition parties and civil society organization have called for a mass protest outside parliament on Monday evening.

Once approved by members of the legislature’s legal affairs committee, which is controlled by Georgian Dream and its allies, the bill can proceed to a first reading in parliament. 

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Polish abortion opponents march against steps to liberalize strict law  

WARSAW — Thousands of Polish opponents of abortion marched Sunday in Warsaw to protest recent steps by the new government to liberalize the predominantly Catholic nation’s strict laws and allow termination of pregnancy until the 12th week.

Many participants in the downtown march were pushing prams with children, while others were carrying white-and-red national flags or posters representing a fetus in the womb.

Poland’s Catholic Church has called for Sunday to be a day of prayer “in defense of conceived life” and has supported the march, organized by an anti-abortion movement.

“In the face of promotion of abortion in recent months, the march will be a rare occasion to show our support for the protection of human life from conception to natural death,” a federation of anti-abortion movements said in a statement.

They were referring to an ongoing public debate surrounding the steps that the 4-month-old government of Prime Minster Donald Tusk is taking to relax the strict law brought in by its conservative predecessor.

Last week, Poland’s parliament, which is dominated by the liberal and pro-European Union ruling coalition voted to approve further detailed work on four proposals to lift the near ban on abortions.

The procedure, which could take weeks or even months, is expected to be eventually rejected by conservative President Andrzej Duda, whose term runs for another year.

Last month Duda vetoed a draft law that would have made the morning-after pill available over the counter from the age of 15.

A nation of some 38 million, Poland is seeking ways to boost the birth rate, which is currently at 1.2 per woman — among the lowest in the European Union. Poland’s society is aging and shrinking, facts that the previous right-wing government used among its arguments for toughening the abortion law.

Currently, abortions are only allowed in cases of rape or incest or if the woman’s life or health is at risk. According to the Health Ministry, 161 abortions were performed in Polish hospitals in 2022. However, abortion advocates estimate that some 120,000 women in Poland have abortions each year, mostly by secretly obtaining pills from abroad.

Women attempting to abort themselves are not penalized, but anyone assisting them can face up to three years in prison. Reproductive rights advocates say the result is that doctors turn women away even in permitted cases for fear of legal consequences for themselves.

One of the four proposals being processed in parliament would decriminalize assisting a woman to have an abortion. Another one, put forward by a party whose leaders are openly Catholic, would keep a ban in most cases but would allow abortions in cases of fetal defects — a right that was eliminated by a 2020 court ruling. The two others aim to permit abortion through the 12th week.

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Zelenskyy warns against Russia’s and Iran’s coordinated ‘terror’ attacks 

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Germany’s Scholz arrives in China on a visit marked by trade tensions, Ukraine conflict

BEIJING — German Chancellor Olaf Scholz arrived in China on Sunday on a visit focused on the increasingly tense economic relationship between the sides and differences over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Scholz’s first destination was the industrial hub of Chongqing, where he and his delegation of ministers and business leaders were to visit a partially German-funded company and other sites in the vast city, which is a production base for China’s auto and other industries.

Scholz is also scheduled to visit the financial hub of Shanghai during his three-day visit, before traveling to the capital, Beijing, to meet with Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Premier Li Qiang.

German companies such as BMW and Volkswagen are highly reliant on the Chinese market, even as Beijing’s support for Russia creates frictions with the West.

Germany’s economy has benefited from China’s demand for investment and manufactured items from cars to chemicals, but those ties have frayed amid increasing competition from Chinese companies and tightened regulations. Political interference has also been blamed for a sharp drop in foreign investment.

German companies have argued they face unfair market barriers in China and the government has pushed for a policy of “de-risking” to reduce reliance on the Chinese market and suppliers.

Despite that, China remained Germany’s top trading partner for the eighth straight year in 2023, with 254.1 billion euros ($271 billion) in goods and services exchanged between the sides, slightly more than what Germany traded with the U.S.

Chinese state broadcaster CCTV showed Scholz descending from his plane in Chonqing and leaving in a motorcade, but did not carry any comments made to the welcoming delegation.

Prior to his arrival, Scholz posted on social platform X that he had discussed the “massive” Russian air attacks on civilian energy infrastructure with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Saturday and declared that Berlin will “stand unbreakably by Ukraine’s side.”

China has refused to criticize Russian aggression. It has maintained trade relations with President Vladimir Putin’s government and aligned its foreign policy with Moscow in opposition to the U.S.-led liberal political order, while touting its authoritarian one-party system as a superior alternative.

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Archeologists find frescoes of Trojan War figures in Pompeii

rome, italy — Archaeologists excavating new sites in Pompeii have uncovered a sumptuous banquet hall decorated with intricately frescoed mythological characters inspired by the Trojan War, officials said Thursday. 

The hall, which features a mosaic floor, was uncovered as part of a project to shore up the areas dividing the excavated and unexcavated parts of Pompeii, the ancient city near Naples that was destroyed in A.D. 79 when Mount Vesuvius erupted. 

The banquet hall was used for refined entertaining and features black walls, a technique that prevented the smoke from oil lamps from being seen, said Gabriel Zuchtriegel, director of the Pompeii archaeological park. 

The figures painted against that black backdrop include Helen of Troy and Apollo. Experts said the reference to mythological figures was designed to entertain guests and provide conversation starters. 

The room, which is about 15 meters (16.4 yards) long and 6 meters (6.56 yards) wide, opens onto a courtyard near a staircase leading to the first floor of the home, the park said in a press release. 

Excavations in Pompeii have recently focused on areas of the city where the middle classes and servants lived, while previous ones have concentrated on the elaborately frescoed villas of Pompeii’s upper classes. 

The excavations that yielded the new banquet hall are designed to improve the hydrogeological structure of the entire park, to make it more sustainable as the region copes with climate extremes — heavy rainfall and intense heat — that are threatening the UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

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